★ A cautionary tale of asking an adept of the Dark Arts to misuse witchery★
The lone horseman cut a shadowy figure, barely visible threading his way through Sherrards Wood. The trail was overgrown and difficult for both man and beast to negotiate, especially as the weather had a mind to be unkind and inclement this winter’s eve. It was a night to be fireside with plates piled high with good food and fine wine served by comely wenches. He cursed vehemently as the cold rain began soaking through his opulent velvet cloak, the fur trim sticking uncomfortably to his skin. The north wind, having taken a dislike to the man, had a mind to torment him and screeched obscenities right back at him.
Unsettled by the strange shadows prowling through the trees and the howling wind Favian made haste. He violently dug sharp spurs into his horse, urging it to break from its steady canter into a gallop. Almost expecting to see a pack of baying hellhounds giving chase he glanced over his shoulder, unaware the path was narrowing ahead. The hoot of a barn owl startled his steed, and spooked, it lurched to the left into dense undergrowth. The move was unexpected and before the man could gain control of the reins angry brambles scratched and tore at his noble face. Favian shouted at the horse as he felt a hot trickle of blood coursing down his cheek, rivulets of red running over his lips. The taste of iron was bitter and he spat in distaste, wiping his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. Savagely he used his whip on the animal’s flanks, blaming the innocent creature for his discomfort.
By the time Favian reached his destination he was in a foul mood. He would not have ventured out on such a night if it were not of such import. Dismounting, he tied Ned his uncomplaining old horse to an ancient chestnut tree. There was no thought to the creature’s well being. It had been a long hard ride and food or water would have brought welcome respite to the tired horse. There was none to be had. Instead the man saw to his own needs and reached deep inside his cavernous cloak searching for a comforting leather flagon filled with mead. Having availed himself of a long draught of the sweet tasting and warming liquor he strode purposefully towards a dilapidated hovel. Standing forlornly within the forest clearing it was a far cry from the opulence within his father’s castle walls. A spiral of thin grey smoke rose up into the damp night air, whatever comfort it brought was carried away on the howling wind. The crackling of broken twigs caused the hairs to rise on his neck. For a moment he hesitated. A sense of foreboding came over him and he felt uncharacteristically afraid. Drawing in his breath and a dagger from his side and with feral eyes searching for hidden foes, he was on high alert. The skinny black cat that rushed by him brought relief from his fear and aiming a misplaced kick at the cat he laughed as it turned, arched its back and hissed. Another deep swig of the mead strengthened his conviction and he followed the creature towards the hovel. The cat was sat outside a weather beaten wooden door staring directly at him. Its amber eyes were penetrating and he had the uncomfortable feeling the creature was boring into his mind. He shook himself, he was not a fanciful man, it was only a cat not some phantasmagorical creature of the night the likes of which the villagers spoke of in hushed and fearful tones. Favian was strong, and if not for an accident of birth as the second son of a nobleman he would be on the brink of becoming the most powerful Lord of the Manor in these parts. The cat was in his way. Favian did not like anything or anyone to stand in the way of what he wanted. Without a second thought he unsheathed his dagger and took aim.
His face clouded darkly at the thought of what might have been if it were not for his weakling of a brother. With only a matter of days, if not hours, before the Lord of the Manor breathed his last it would all fall into his unworthy hands. Favian spat in disgust at the thought of Florian, his pathetic sibling whom he had left sobbing at their aged Father’s deathbed inheriting everything. The heir should have been him. He was the man to own the castle and the lands far beyond its walls. He should be the one with men to command, swearing allegiance to no one but the King himself. He should be the one to marry Estella, the comely and virtuous maiden chosen for his brother’s bride. The thoughts burnt as raging coals in the furnace of his mind. It should have been him! He deserved no less. Life was unfair! His were the eyes that saw her first, the French beauty with flaxen hair wound and bound around her proud head and dancing eyes of cobalt blue. He had shown his devotion to her on the jousting field. Yet she had spurned his ardent displays of valour in favour of his weak sibling. How could she prefer Florian’s vapid utterings of courtly love, serenading her with the songs of the Troubadours, to his manly valour?
As his Father’s second son arrangements had already been made for him to enter the church. His future mapped out for him, a future he did not want. It was not what he deserved. A future life as an Abbot was not to his taste, something had to be done and it had to be done now, before it was too late. The hovel before him held the solution. He had come this far and now there was no going back.
He seethed recalling the scene that had become etched in agonies of jealousy upon his mind, robbing him of sleep and peaceful repose. Florian and Estella locked in a tight embrace beneath the eastern tower, whilst he remained unseen listening from a window above.
‘Ah Estella, my heart aches for Father and his plight. I fear the days to come. If there were another way I would keep my brother close, but I have seen the darkness growing in his jealous heart. He would see me join our Father in death’s embrace and take you to his side!’
‘Fear not, my beloved Florian, for I will be forever at your side, two hearts entwined as one. Favian has a cruel and vindictive streak. The powers that be would not allow for him to become the next Lord of this Manor. If ever two brothers were so different! One of you pure heart, the other with a heart as black as night. He would not rule with wise council and grace, as you will my love.’
‘He does not want to enter the confines of the church, but Father and I decided he is far too brutal to take on the auspices of Knighthood.’
‘Chivalry is not in his dark nature, Florian. The church may well prove safe haven for his eternal soul. Come my love, let us return to your Father’s side. Eliza has brought me a potion of Meadowsweet and Wood Sorrell she prepared in the herborium to aid him in his hour of need.’
‘You are indeed blessed to have her as your handmaiden for she comes to you with many talents born of an ancient lineage, my love. Those amber eyes of hers hold much knowledge.’
‘Indeed Florian, for one so young she is well versed in the old ways, which are always useful in dangerous times such as these.’
Hand in hand they had walked back into the castle and to his Father’s bedchamber.
With a sense of urgency Florian sought out Eliza…
The interior of the hovel was dark, lit by a single stumpy candle formed from tallow and the dying embers of a spent fire, and it took Favian a moment or two to acclimatise to the gloom. The tallow smelt acrid and unpleasant and he sniffed in distain. A creak drew his attention and he made out the shape of a crumpled old woman sat fireside upon a wooden stool. She was wrapped in a thick woollen shawl over a dirty black skirt. Her feet were bare and coated in the grime of the forest floor. The cat was nowhere to be seen, despite having evaded his dagger and run through the door which had creaked open seconds before Favian had made his unceremonious entrance. A sudden movement and the fire sprang into life casting a low glow. A blackened pot hung on a hook above the grate. Burning embers added much needed illumination to the pitifully poor interior. It was almost threadbare apart from a rocking chair and a trestle table laden with jars of potions and bunches of dried herbs and flowers. The old woman broke into an unexpectedly raucous cackle and the cavern of her mouth gawped open exposing a few rotten teeth within her wizened maw. Her face was lined and wrinkled by the ravages of time and strands of straggly white hair covered her eyes.
‘What can I do for you good Sir Favian?’ Her polite enquiry was laced with sarcasm.
‘Eliza sent me,’ he stated starkly, not questioning she knew who he was.
‘Oh.’ There was no surprise in the voice that answered.
‘Eliza told me you practice the Arts.’
‘What Arts would they be? What would an old woman such as myself know of Arts? I live a humble life, living of the land and grateful for the charity of those good of heart.’
‘Pah! Don’t play with me old woman,’ he menacingly bent his large frame into her frail body. ‘It is said by those superstitious villagers that you are an adept of the dark arts.’
‘It would be very foolish to claim such powers. You know what villagers are like with their silly gossip about witchcraft and the like.’ She left her words hanging coldly between them.
‘Eliza is not given to gossip. That girl knows things!’
‘Aye, she may well do so Sir Favian, but I dare say what she knows she shares only with those she trusts within your Father’s walls and keeps her own counsel.’
‘And she did too, until I beat it out of her!’ he spat in frustration.
The old woman responded icily ‘Did you indeed? Was there any need for that? Eliza has been a true and loyal maidservant to the Lady Estella and your noble family. I hear you tried to make good use of both those fair ladies yourself. I hear your Father has made provisions for you to enter the Church.’ Her voice was loaded with contempt.
Favian clenched his fists, face red with rage. He would have swung for the helpless old woman, but he needed her. His eyes grew cold and he resolved once he had what he had come for she would get what she rightly deserved for such insolence. They burnt witches and no one would doubt his testimony the old hag had put a spell on his brother causing him a quick and painful death. He smiled at the thought of all his plans coming to fruition. With his Father dying, his brother dead and the Manor all but his nothing would prevent him taking the lady Estella for his wife. And as for the comely Eliza, there would be no one to protect her and keep him from her bedchamber now. It would not be long until he got just what he rightly deserved.
‘A man in my position gets what he deserves, and more, that is why I am here and you will help me get what is rightfully mine.’ He crouched down low and grabbed the old woman’s wrists in a vice like grip. ‘Eliza said you practice the dark Arts. She said you were the only one who could give me what I deserve, and give it to me you will!’
‘Unhand me and tell me what it is you want, I will not be able to practice the Arts you speak of with broken hands.’
‘I want control of the Manor and all the land and villagers. The old Lord is on his deathbed and I should be his heir.’
‘Does not his Lordship have a firstborn son, your brother? You are but a second son, the right of title will not pass to you.’
‘Aye, what you say is true, but with less than a year between us my brother is everything I am not. He is weak and his support for King Stephen over the Empress Maude could loose us everything in these dangerous times. As Lord of the manor I will pledge allegiance to Maude and her cause. I will receive great riches and rewards for my loyalty!’
‘There are many in these parts would call that treachery Sir. King Stephen is the rightful heir and his support is strong. You could loose everything, The King is not a forgiving man, so it is said. But how can I help with such matters?’
‘You were the one taught Eliza the power of potions. I need such a potion. I need something to remove the obstacles in my path to my destiny. I need what I deserve and I need it now, tonight!’
‘Then why did you not ask Eliza for such a potion?’
‘She said her skills were in healing and removing those things that ail a body. I beat the truth out of her, she sent me here to get what I deserve from one practised in the old ways and the dark Arts. I am done conversing with you old woman; give me what I ask for. I will have what I rightfully deserve before day break.’
‘Hmm. Indeed I shall use my Arts to give you what you deserve, Sir Favian. If it is your will and you so desire it, then confirm your intent and it shall be so, but I warn you once the spell has been cast to give you what you rightfully deserve there will be no going back. Death will occur and what has been engendered cannot be undone.’
‘I do desire it.’
The old woman stood up and walked over to the trestle table. Carefully she rooted through the bottles and herbs. Selecting those she required she returned to the fire. There are indeed herbs that heal and there are also herbs that harm. Throwing sprigs of henbane onto the fire, she began chanting arcane words. She added Hemlock, Mandrake and Thorn-apple followed by Wolfsbane. The fire began to spit and growl as angry flames grew higher.
Favian stood before it lapping up the warmth, satisfied it had begun. The chanting grew more urgent and the flames intensified.
‘Are you sure I should continue?’ she asked.
‘Do it!’ he replied excitement of what would rightfully be his consuming him.
The old woman opened a vial of a foul smelling liquid and cast it onto the fire, her woollen cloak slipped to the floor. She did not look frail now. Her hair was no longer white, but a blanket of black cascading down her back. Through billowing smoke he could just about make out her shape as she stood tall and proud. As she added more herbs and resins, the smoke cleared. Favian saw her eyes for the first time. Luminous, deep amber eyes. Eliza’s eyes. Shocked he blinked and she was gone. With a roar, flames of blue and gold chased red sparks up the chimney. Favian gave a gasp, it seemed as if the gates of hell were opening. Fire and brimstones spewed out into the room and began encircling him. In fear he cried for it to stop.
A cackle filled the air. The only reply was a vicious hiss from the black cat as it stepped out of the cloak on the floor, fixed him with deep amber eyes and sauntered out of the door.
~Thank you for reading!
★ and more tales of the supernatural are within my latest book★